Self-sufficiency and just feeding people


It has to be admitted that this virus has turned the world upside down. The late, great, Douglas Adams wrote, “The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?”

Thanks to Corvid 19 we have dropped precipitously from the third phase all the way down to the first. “How can we eat?” We’re in survival mode.

When you look at the table which covers various foodstuffs, some of which we’re self-sufficient in, you can see there is some good news.

First seed potatoes. Well we don’t actually eat them, but if we have enough seed potatoes we can grow enough potatoes.

Wheat looks less good. Not only are we not quite self-sufficient, but the wheat we do have could end up producing some pretty sorry looking bread. In simple terms, bread-making wheat is better the more sunshine it gets. This is why, as a rule of thumb, the French grow better bread-making wheat than we do. What we normally do is buy some very high quality American or Canadian milling wheat and use that to bring our average up.

When it comes to meat, there’s plenty of lamb, we’re not bad for beef but pork and poultry are a bit scarce. There again, we’ve plenty of barley so we can keep up beer production and potentially feed more livestock. (So lamb chops, chips and beer are still on the menu.)

Rapeseed oil may not be your cooking oil of choice, so at least we’ve got it.

The problem comes with vegetables and fruit. We import the vast majority of them. (So just don’t expect peas with your chop and chips.)


There are various reasons for this. Firstly we don’t have the climate for a lot of fruit. Yes we can grow a damned good apple, but let’s be honest, oranges and bananas are not really our forte.

Secondly a lot of veg is now too cheap to grow in the UK. The major retailers have driven the price down until it’s reached a point where it’s not worth growing in this country. Other countries with cheaper labour and better climate grow it for us.

And finally, unless the crop can be mechanised it needs hand-picking and you struggle to find anybody in this country that is willing to do it. Especially given the fact that it’s hard work, the conditions are often unpleasant (given our climate, this is inevitable) and the money isn’t good. Indeed given the way the major retailers have driven prices down, it’s no wonder the money isn’t good.

So does this actually matter? Whilst we aren’t in the happy situation of our grandparents, where the Great White Queen had millions of happy subjects living under hotter foreign suns who were delighted to send cheap food to us, a lot of people in this country still have that attitude. Food production is something to be done as cheaply as possible, exploiting people they’ll never be forced to apologise to.

Now the problem we have is that, because of the virus, we will struggle to get people to harvest some of our crops. Now I’ve been told by some people that they have no sympathy, because it’s all to do with Brexit and farmers were a bunch of thicko racists who voted for it so can suffer the consequences of their stupidity.

Except it’s nothing to do with Brexit. Arrangements were being put in place to allow for seasonable workers. We imported seasonal workers long before we went into the EU.

The reason people are not coming is, first they are locked down in their home country, and then they struggle to get flights even if they could travel. And finally, do you really want to run the potential risk of riding out a pandemic in a country where you struggle to understand the ICU nurse, and the Priest who gives you the final unction cannot bless you in your own tongue? Or would you rather spend it with your family?
It’s not just us who are suffering. Germany relies on 300,000 seasonal workers, the French have to find fewer, but depending on how you measure it, they still need about 200,000. The Italians need 370,000 seasonal workers and whilst some Italians are not too proud to do the work, they import them from all over the world.

Capture 2


But it’s not just a European issue. In India farmers are feeding strawberries and lettuce to their cattle because the tourists who would otherwise have eaten them aren’t there anymore. Neither are the street vendors who would have sold them to the local population. Not only that but the lockdown imposed by the Indian government left 120 million migrant labourers struggling to get home and with no money for rent, food or transport. In India harvest is far less mechanised in many areas. Grain sacks are filled manually, manually loaded onto vehicles and manually unloaded again.

Even countries like Brazil are experiencing problems because they’re struggling to get lorry drivers to haul stuff off farm, and there are apparently shortages of spares to keep equipment working.

Because of the uncertainty, some countries are limiting exports. Russian and Kazakhstan have set a limit to grain exports, whilst Vietnam, Cambodia, and India have limited rice exports. Some countries which are major net importers of basic foodstuffs are frantically stockpiling. But in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is a major importer of grain and rice, the governments haven’t the money to stockpile.

Also production of other products has been hit. So Kenya, a major supplier of green beans and peas to Europe, just cannot ship orders because of a lack of flights. So about half of the workers have been sent home.


So what is going to happen? Are British people (and Germans and Italians etc.) going to go back to doing field work?

To be honest, if they do I can see positive benefits for society. At the very least it’ll put people back in touch with the realities of food production. So when Mum goes into Tesco or Asda and sees a cabbage she knows exactly what her daughter was paid for picking it, and what the farm got paid for it.
If British people do go back for farm work, what sort of pay are they going to get? Are the supermarkets going to be willing to pay a higher price for the food at the farm gate? After all, even if we do get a lot of new field workers, they won’t be skilled. They won’t have the dexterity and stamina of the people they’re replacing. Obviously some will drop out, but some will stick with it and will eventually reach what you might call a ‘professional’ level. But the wage bill is going to have to rise to cover the extra people needed, even if they aren’t paid more per head.

And then looking ahead, are we going to continue with the obscenity of importing vegetables by air from Kenya when that part of Africa struggles to produce enough basic foodstuffs to feed itself?


There again, what do I know? Ask an expert


As a reviewer commented, “This is a selection of anecdotes about life as a farmer in Cumbria. The writer grew up on his farm, and generations of his family before him farmed the land. You develop a real feeling for the land you are hefted to and this comes across in these stories. We hear of the cattle, the sheep, his succession of working dogs, the weather and the neighbours, in an amusing and chatty style as the snippets of Jim Webster’s countryman’s wisdom fall gently. I love this collection.”

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31 thoughts on “Self-sufficiency and just feeding people

  1. Liz Wright April 11, 2020 at 10:21 am Reply

    Hi can you just explain why the table is not to 100% but to 140% does that simply mean we have a surplus?  Great piece might pillage part of this as well for The smallholder. I have been banging on about food security for years.   Round here the barley barons will do the best they can not to farm with solar panels, digesters using maize (not quite in the spirit of digesters),  etc etc.  They go for the most money with the least amount of man power and then whinge that they have no money which might be more convincing if their massive tractors were not compacting the soil and the range rovers were not changed every year.  They like the consumers, have lost touch with the point of farming and food so I particularly agree with your last paragraph.

    OUr self sufficiency has gone down dramatically since the seventies, these days we would have run out food by august.

    • jwebster2 April 11, 2020 at 10:30 am Reply

      When it goes above 100% we have an exportable surplus. Actually we export and import stuff below the 100% level. So whilst milk isn’t mentioned here, we export and import cheese because of personal tastes.

  2. Eddy Winko April 11, 2020 at 11:53 am Reply

    We spend so little on food now compared to 50 years ago is no wonder that someone is exploited along the way, let hope that some of these injustices are undone in the shadow of this crisis. I wonder if the farmers of the UK have the flexibility or foresight to adapt to the change as the season is now upon them?

    • jwebster2 April 11, 2020 at 12:03 pm Reply

      A rule of thumb I like is that every generation could live on organic food and spend a lower proportion of their income than their parents did living on conventional

      As to farmers adapting, farmers will adapt to the market. It might be, for example, that next year people don’t plant vegetables and plant grain instead because they can reliably harvest that without the hassle of trying to find labour
      I heard of one large farmer has decided this year that he wasn’t going to plant any crops, so wouldn’t need to hire any contractors in. He and his staff would just do the environmental work he’s also contracted to do. His argument was that given the damage done to land last winter because to the weather, the lateness of the season etc, any crops he grew would be economically marginal at the best.
      But his plan is that he can get next year’s autumn cereal crops planted in good time, into land that has had a refreshing period of fallow, and they’ll probably pay better. So his reckoning is that across the two years, he’ll probably be no worse off
      Farmers do respond to the market, we have to. It’s just that the great and the good may not understand the market they’ve given us to respond to.

      • Eddy Winko April 12, 2020 at 5:37 am

        I can understand the point of the farmer who has put things on hold, but it only reinforces my belief that farms are too big with very small focus. Not that I blame the farms, rather the market, maybe (I hope) this is an opportunity for the rules to be rewritten.

      • jwebster2 April 12, 2020 at 5:40 am

        The problem is that size is dictated by the level of investment necessary to survive.
        And also the price of produce. The lower,relatively, the price of produce, the more you have to produce to make a living.
        I can remember back in the early 1970s, my father commenting that ‘Thirty cows will keep both of us’
        By this he mean that they would support two families

      • jwebster2 April 12, 2020 at 5:44 am

        The problem is that now 120 cows just about support one family. Obviously you could go back to the situation where thirty cows would do it, but the farmer needs to make four times the profit per litre. To be fair, that probably just needs a doubling of the price of milk and milk products, provided all the money went back to the farmer
        But if you follow this through and double the price of food, meaning that the average family in the country spends not 8% but 16% of their income on food. So what do they not buy? What industries die?
        I agree with you that food is too cheap, but where does the money come from? Our economy, the technology we use to communicate with each other, exists because people have surplus income

      • Eddy Winko April 12, 2020 at 6:04 am

        I guess my views are skewed to a degree as here in Poland 20 cows will keep two families going as my neighbour demonstrates. He has 10 hactares, grows all his own feed, spends his summer cutting hay and keeps a garden, chickens and pigs to feed his family. He doesn’t have a fancy car nor a quad or Landrover, but he seems content with his lot and any surplus cash he has he invests in new (second-hand) kit, be it a tractor or round bailer (last year)
        I know the cost ofliving is less here, but you have to wonder how the gap between a Polish farmer and a UK farmer has gotten so wide and what can be done to close that gap. it cannot be good in any business to be a slave to the next payment that has to be made on the equipment that you need to run your farm. It seems sad to me that it went this way, but maybe I just have too much of a romantic view of it 🙂

      • jwebster2 April 12, 2020 at 6:10 am

        Here 20 cows would barely pay our council tax costs of basic machinery
        I’ve done the peasant lifestyle and as a cowman I’ve worked over eighty hours a week, for fifty or so weeks a year for thirty years.

  3. Doug Jacquier April 11, 2020 at 12:46 pm Reply

    As per usual, Jim, a perceptive and intelligent take on things agricultural. In Oz, our otherwise competent handling of the crisis by our PM has been marred by his invocation to our migrant workers and backpackers to bugger off back to their countries of origin and not expect any financial support or health services from the country whose economy they help to prop up, while our youth become Insta influencers and pursue other similarly valuable pursuits, like ignoring social distancing. On the bright side, our animal farmers (PETA believers reach for the smelling salts at this point) and vegetable farmers are experiencing growth in the range of 300 to 400% from direct farm gate sales and home deliveries. At the end of the day, do we really need bananas and oranges? And growing peas and beans is hardly rocket science. Perhaps BoJo could send every citizen a copy of The Grapes of Wrath as an insight into where we are potentially headed.

    • jwebster2 April 11, 2020 at 2:57 pm Reply

      I am trying to see what is coming. Basically governments are going to be left with hellish debt. Wartime levels of debt. At least afterwards we’re not going to have to fix bomb damage

      So what are governments going to do. They can either let inflation rip and half the debt in five years while they pay off the debt on fixed rates negotiated at low rates
      Or do they keep interest rates low so the debt doesn’t get paid off for a very long time, but the payments aren’t too bad.

      here direct sales have been mixed. Some have got a lot of customers in the catering trade and that just stopped. There’s a lot of people trying a lot of things

  4. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt April 11, 2020 at 4:49 pm Reply

    We have gotten so used to being spoiled! We’ve always known about the lives of migrant fruit pickers – and yet it continues. DT the magnificent whines about closing borders, and ignores that most Americans don’t want to be out in the fields in the hot sun picking tomatoes.

    We will probably survive the pandemic, but things are going to be very messed up for a long time – and I have ZERO capability of growing anything to eat.

    I shudder at what places like India are going to suffer.

    • jwebster2 April 11, 2020 at 5:01 pm Reply

      It is going to be ‘interesting’ here in the rich world, but for the poor in the third world it could be grim

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt April 11, 2020 at 5:28 pm

        Not could. WILL be grim. Think Irish potato famine.

      • jwebster2 April 11, 2020 at 6:20 pm

        Ironically the world has decent stockpiles of bulk commodities, and they could be sent as aid easily enough
        Distribution would be an issue

  5. Jane Sturgeon April 15, 2020 at 12:59 pm Reply

    An intelligent take on it all, Jim. Thank you.

    • jwebster2 April 15, 2020 at 1:22 pm Reply

      I did try to keep up the high standard of hysteria you see in the rest of the media but frankly my heart wasn’t in it and I failed abysmally 😉

      • Jane Sturgeon April 16, 2020 at 6:03 am

        Thank goodness for that, Jim. We rely on you for common sense woven with wit. ☺️

      • jwebster2 April 16, 2020 at 10:23 am

        I must try harder 🙂

  6. wordlywoman2 May 6, 2020 at 1:59 am Reply

    Self-sufficiency begins at home. From growing in a pot, or digging up the back garden. Everyone should do their own bit. In Australia we rely heavily on seasonal workers. It’s hard work with lower than low pay. Lets start community gardens in built-up areas, NOW.
    Love your work Jim!

    • jwebster2 May 6, 2020 at 4:50 am Reply

      Certainly I think some people can do more. I’ve talked to a couple of people who have put some potatoes in the garden which they’ve never done before.
      Some of our cities will have trouble doing this. But there are some old graveyards becoming wildlife gardens to they might be something that could be used

  7. wordlywoman2 May 6, 2020 at 8:18 am Reply

    Hanging baskets and pots on balconies, anyone who has spare land like a large back yard, or a spare block next door can start a community garden, I’ve seen on TV people growing vegies on the ‘verge’. Gardens have been grown on top of blocks of units too.

    • jwebster2 May 6, 2020 at 5:59 pm Reply

      I think it’s not so much the quantity they produce as the attitude they encourage. I wouldn’t sneer at somebody growing carrots in a window box, because it’s keeping them ‘grounded’

  8. wordlywoman2 May 6, 2020 at 11:39 pm Reply

    I have grown broccoli cauliflowers snow peas in hanging baskets, beans and tomatoes can do the same. Leeks, spring onions and shallots in polystyrene boxes. You can grow potatoes in a bucket with a few holes poked in the bottom for drainage. 3 hens in a coup will give you protein from the eggs. There’s so much good information on the internet, whole sites dedicated to the subject.

    • jwebster2 May 7, 2020 at 4:44 am Reply

      I think you just have to start with what you have handy and see where it takes you 🙂

  9. […] face bankruptcy with the prospect of rises in many costs for both businesses and indivduals. The UK has a self-sufficiency problem and with an impending recession and a long return to pre-pandemic population behaviour, the knock […]

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